Years ago, I decided that the greatest need in our country was art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work.

–Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924)

The Power of a Few

It’s amazing to realize that most of the priceless Italian Renaissance masterpieces in American museum collections result from the efforts of just a handful of individuals.

Starting in the mid-1800s, American art enthusiasts began to seek out Italian paintings for their own collections. Like European collectors of the time, they had a taste—sometimes a passion—for Italian Renaissance paintings. It seemed that a work by Leonardo, Raphael, or Titian might never go out of fashion. This hunger for paintings of the Italian Renaissance continued through the post-World War II era.

Over the course of 150 years, a small handful of American collectors wielded tremendous influence over the objects that would eventually populate our country’s museums. They relied on trusted advisors such as the famous Bernard Berenson to help them navigate tricky auction houses and private collections in Europe. They also traveled extensively, personally visiting artists, collections, and auction houses to hand-select Italian masterpieces.

These collectors—people like Pierpont Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Walters, John Ringling, and a few others—made an indelible mark on access to fine art for the American public. Luckily, most of these collectors shared their legacies, and today, we can enjoy a taste of authentic Italy without ever getting on a plane.


Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de Benci, National Gallery of Art, 1494-98, Washington, DC

As the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in America—and a portrait of a Florentine lady, no less—Ginevra de Benci’s likeness is arguably one of the most important works of the Italian Renaissance in America. What’s remarkable about this painting is the immediacy of Ginevra herself. In this early portrait, Leonardo is beginning to change the way women are portrayed. Ginevra is not simply a status symbol but a real person. Rather than settling on her clothing or jewels, our eye is drawn instead to the girl’s beautiful yet puzzling face. Is she melancholy? Bored? Sick? Are we looking at the familiar ennui of a teenager? Ginevra seems to look through us instead of at us; what is going through her mind? It’s this psychological rather than emblematic treatment of the sitter that sets this portrait apart from other Italian portraits of the time.


Michelangelo Buonarroti, Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, 1487, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX

This strange little picture is Michelangelo’s only painting in America. It depicts Saint Anthony, who, according to the Golden Legend, lived as a hermit in the company of a pig. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before visions of demons began to torment him. Michelangelo probably based his composition on an engraving by the German artist Martin Schongauer. What’s even more surprising? Art historians believe Michelangelo painted this picture when he was training in Master Ghirlandaio’s studio, at about 13 years old.


Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1623-25, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI

One of the few women artists to rise above the sea of male names in pre-modern Italy, Artemisia Gentileschi was a force to be reckoned with at the turn of the seventeenth century. This impressive painting depicts the biblical Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, a subject that Artemisia would return to more than once over the course of her career. The dramatic lighting calls to mind the work of Caravaggio, but the painting’s directness and realism holds its own.



Piero di Cosimo, The Building of a Palace, 1480s, Ringling Museum, Sarasota, FL

There are varied opinions about the subject matter of this interesting painting by the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo, but most art historians agree that the building in the background probably represents an ideal palace rather than a real one. In the 1920s, John Ringling started construction on his own very real Italian Renaissance palace in Sarasota, imagined as a Venetian gothic palace in the spirit of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s elaborate Boston home. Ringling later bequeathed his palace—and his art collection—to the people of Florida.



Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, ca. 1595, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC

Lavinia Fontana, another successful female painter of the Italian Renaissance, painted this serious portrait of the Bolognese noblewoman Costanza Alidosi. The sitter, whose husband Ridolfo was a senator and ally of the Medici family, turns her body toward the viewer, meeting our eyes with a sober expression. The artist excelled at rendering the gold embroidery, an intricate lace collar, and luxurious fabrics. At the same time, Costanza is much more than the sum of these decorative details; she comes across as a powerful, intimidating presence.



Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman, ca. 1510, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA

This fun portrait by Vittore Carpaccio portrays a formidable-looking Venetian nobleman whose striking presence is made all the more intriguing by the fact that we don’t know the sitter’s identity. The great pouf of hair, the tight hat and collar, and the steady—perhaps untrusting—gaze give us the idea of a tough character with a sense of fashion and flair.


Francesco Francia, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, 1495-1500, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

Francesco Raibolini, also called Francesco Francia, is an unsung hero of Italian Renaissance painting. Hailing from Bologna, he also worked as a goldsmith, and his pictures seem to shine with an inner luminescence that seems perfectly suited for an Italian Renaissance Madonna and Child. The North Carolina Museum of Art holds several impressive works of Italian Renaissance painting, but this one stands out.



Frick Collection, New York, NY: Works by Andrea del Sarto, Veronese, others

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA: Works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Veronese, others

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, many others

Morgan Library and Museum, New York: A fabulous collection of Italian drawings

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Works by Donatello, Duccio, others

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Works by Fra Angelico, Titian, Raphael

Ringling Museum, Sarasota, FL: Works by Piero di Cosimo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Titian, others

Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD: Many Italian late medieval / early Renaissance panel paintings and manuscripts


Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL: Works by Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian, and others

Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH: Works by Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo

Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI: Works by Bellini, Botticelli, Bronzino, Fra Angelico, Titian, Veronese and others


J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA: Works by Michelangelo and many others

Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA: Works by Bellini, Botticelli, Donatello, Giorgione, Raphael


This article first appeared in The Daily Beast.

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